When Italian soccer giant Juventus was caught in a match-fixing scandal in the mid-aughties, its entire set-up got pulled apart.
The club president was sentenced to five years in jail. The team was stripped of its last championship and demoted to the second-tier division. Though no player was implicated, half of Juventus’s best talent left. The club would later claim to have lost $650-million as a direct result of its punishment.
That’s how they do revenge in Italy, the country that invented the idea.
In the United States, they favour frontier justice – which is to say that the people in charge tend to stay in charge, regardless of what they’ve done or to whom.
Exhibit A: the continuing American League Championship Series. It features a bunch of cheaters (Houston) against other cheaters at one remove (Boston). You won’t hear anybody on the broadcast talking about that because it might hurt someone’s feelings – mostly, the cheaters’.
The Juventus scandal revolved around the manipulation of refereeing assignments so that bigger teams got officials more amenable to their cause. It was never clear how much, or even if, games were affected by those switches. In the end, it seemed just as likely to be a case of would-be swindlers being swindled themselves.
The 2017 Houston Astros scandal was much more A to B. The scheme – letting Houston hitters know whether they were getting a fastball or a breaking ball via the cunning use of a trashcan lid – had an obvious and measurable effect on game outcomes.
Only a couple of Italian players were implicated in the big, dumb Juventus cheat. The vast majority had no clue what was going on.
Everyone in Houston knew. The players, managers, coaches, video guys, clubbies – everyone. Apparently, the only person who wasn’t fully read into the operation was the general manager, Jeff Luhnow.
You know how three people keep a secret? If two of them are dead.
So how do 50 people keep a secret when it’s pretty much guaranteed that one of them is going to be traded and have some hard feelings about it? The answer is they don’t.
Two years ago, I’d have said the real crime in Houston was stupidity. How did the brainiacs behind this conspiracy not see that this was going to come back on them?
But now I get it. They knew that if/when it did, no one would really care, or certainly wouldn’t care for long.
The only person who really got it in the neck was Luhnow. He’s unemployable forever. Everyone else came out of it fine. Some a lot better than fine.
The manager, A.J. Hinch, was suspended and fired, but got another job about 10 minutes after his reinstatement.
Astros bench coach Alex Cora was singled out as the scheme’s main architect by an Major League Baseball investigation.
By the time it all came out, he’d moved on to run the Red Sox, where he won the World Series in 2018.
The bad news? He also got suspended and split up with Boston. The good news? He was suspended for the shortened pandemic season in 2020, so big whoop.
As soon as his suspension was lifted, Boston rehired him, meaning it hadn’t really unhired him in the first place. It just needed it to look that way.
Cora now finds himself in the weird position of being the Massachusetts-based spokesman for a Texan crime.
The poster boys for this affront to sportsmanship should be the Alex Bregmans and Jose Altuves of the world. It should be the Houston players wearing the scarlet letter, because they benefited most directly from the cheat.
But the players have the pro’s freedom to dodge questions on the topic. Because what are you going to do? Fire them for refusing to feel shame? As long as they’re good, they’re unfireable. As soon as they aren’t good, no one gives a damn what they say about anything.
By contrast, Cora has to talk about it. He is fireable, and so depends on the goodwill of the media and fans.
Cora is no dummy. Unlike Houston’s players, he understands that trying to shimmy around the problem with a bunch of weasel words or a “no comment” will only incite people. The smart path through this is extreme contrition.
“For those that think [the scandal] is in the past, no, we live it every day,” Cora told reporters last week. “I live it every day. We made a mistake and we’re paying the price.”
You see what Cora did there, right? With a few words pulled from the soft-psychology prayer book every high-profile malfeasant quotes from these days, Cora has identified the real victim of the Houston sign-stealing scandal – himself.
And it’s working.
All of a sudden, it seems cruel to keep talking about it. Alex might hear you and how would he feel then? Didn’t you hear what he said? He made a mistake and he lives it every day. The poor guy. Between that and the enormous salary he is paid to wear pyjamas to work, it’s a wonder he can get through the week.
By the end of this postseason, the Houston scandal will be over. By next year, it will be totally forgotten. The only winners in this are the reporters who broke the story and every single person on the Houston Astros who isn’t Jeff Luhnow.
Anyone who thought this might turn out differently didn’t take America into consideration. America hates a bully, but loves a scoundrel.
With his affable humility and obvious intelligence, Cora is the perfect scoundrel for our times. That MLB report found that Boston had its own sign-stealing-lite operation after Cora arrived there.
This wasn’t a “mistake.” It was a long con.
However, MLB did not impose additional discipline on Cora because an investigation found he “did not effectively communicate to Red Sox players the sign-stealing rules that were in place for the 2018 season.” There are those weasel words Cora is clever enough to avoid, though baseball just can’t help itself.
That’s how the con works in the United States – once you get caught, you start on a second, even more ambitious con. The goal of that second con is getting everyone to admit that in their secret heart, they may hate cons, but they love con artists.
They especially love con artists who get away with it.